Gulyas Argues Against Granting Floodplain Variance

SNOW HILL – Elected officials in Worcester County granted a rare, after the fact, floodplain building variance this week, despite the concerns of one County Commissioner who is worried that the variance will endanger the county’s federal flood insurance rating.

“They do consider that in flood insurance ratings for the whole county,” staffer Ed Tudor told the County Commissioners Tuesday morning.

The planning and permitting office submits a bi-annual report to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on floodplain variances. The county has not granted a floodplain variance for five or six years, he said.

FEMA, Tudor explained, looks at the number of floodplain variances granted and how carefully those situations were assessed.

If the County Commissioners granted many such requests, or did so indiscriminately, there could be a problem with the FEMA flood insurance ratings, according to Tudor, but that is not the case in Worcester County.

The message appeared to he that the county does not have to worry about flood insurance rates going up because of the variance.

“We’ve always gotten good ratings in that regard,” Tudor said.

Apparently unconvinced by the argument, County Commission President Louise Gulyas said, “You’re quite possibly jeopardizing the coverage for the county.”

Tudor said FEMA’s view of approved floodplain variances depends on the circumstances of the variance. FEMA frowns on floodplain variances for homes, for example.

The property in question Tuesday consisted of two new state-of-the-art chicken houses and a mechanical building.

Farm owner William Rowland demolished two 50-year-old chicken houses and a mechanical building on his farm near Stockton and replaced them with new buildings. Those buildings are in a 100-year floodplain, which has a one percent chance of flooding every year.

No one realized that the new structures were below the flood plain elevation until they were built. The elevation of the new chicken houses is higher than the old ones, though still not elevated as they should be under FEMA regulations.

“I want to know how this happened,” said Gulyas.

Rowland got all the permits he needed, reported his attorney Hugh Cropper, starting with a demolition permit to take down the old chicken houses and a zoning permit to build the new ones.

Agricultural structures only need a zoning permit. To get that zoning permit, an applicant needs to submit a site plan, but no drawings.

The county conducts only final inspections on non-residential farm buildings, which is when the elevation certificate showing that the new buildings are below the base flood elevation emerged.

“Have we learned a lesson here?” Commissioner Bud Church asked.

“Absolutely,” said Tudor.

Commissioner Bobby Cowger wanted to know why the elevation of the buildings, which is too low for the floodplain, was not picked up earlier in the process.

In this situation, although the elevation certificate was checked off on the application for permit, the need for that certificate fell through the cracks, said Worcester County attorney Sonny Bloxom.

By the letter of the code, elevation certificates are required for all non-residential structures, Cropper said. He feels that elevation certificates should not be required on agricultural buildings.

“I think it was very reasonable to assume he didn’t need an elevation certificate,” said Cropper. “I thought he didn’t need one for agriculture.”

The Maryland Department of the Environment’s flood coordinator did not agree that the site should receive a FEMA variance, saying in his advisory-only letter that Rowland failed to show good cause, failed to show that without the variance he would experience ‘exceptional hardship’ and has failed to flood proof the new buildings.

Tudor said he has never known a water resource specialist to agree to a FEMA variance. The commissioners are the only resort for a FEMA variance.

“Nobody else can give them. It’s up to the County Commissioners,” said Cropper.

The commissioners concluded that they could not require Rowland to raise the buildings in order to flood proof the already-built structures. The buildings are too isolated to pose a threat to neighboring structures during a flood.

The commissioners approved the variance 5 to 1. Gulyas was the lone dissenting vote. “I’m not worried about the floods. I’m worried about Worcester County,” said Gulyas.